Karina Canellakis declares that being a conductor has ‘always been on my mind’

American conductor Karina Canellakis may be making her podium debut with the Chicago Symphony this month, but she is no stranger to Symphony Center. 

Currently chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Canellakis trained as a violinist. For several years in the mid-2000s, she was a regular substitute in the CSO’s violin section. For four years before Riccardo Muti arrived as music director in 2010, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink shared the CSO’s top conducting post. Canellakis was thinking seriously about becoming a conductor, and she reveled in working with the two eminent maestros.

“I was on tour with the orchestra,” she said in a recent phone interview from her base in Amsterdam. “I did the Bruckner Seventh and Eighth symphonies with Haitink. I did Boulez’s own music.

“It was my experience in the CSO that really introduced me to repertoire,” said Canellakis, who will lead the CSO in concerts May 19-22. “I would go home after CSO rehearsals and obsessively research every recording I could find about whatever music we were playing that day. Back in those days I didn’t have an iPhone. So I couldn’t wait to go home where I had internet access, and get online and look up the recordings. I would read everything I could about the piece. It was uncontrollable. I don’t think any of my colleagues knew that about me. I was kind of quiet.”

Her Netherlands orchestra is in the middle of a Janáček opera cycle, and her passion for that composer was sparked by performing Bartók's Bluebeard’s Castle with the CSO under Boulez. She recalls his rehearsals of Debussy’s La mer when he worked with the CSO percussion to get exactly the musical effect he wanted. “He wanted a whoosh, whoosh sound,” she said. “It wasn’t quite right, and he kept on it and kept on it. Every time I do La mer now, I refer back to that sound world that he created and all those tiny little details he talked about.”

“It was my experience in the CSO that really introduced me to repertoire. I would go home after CSO rehearsals and obsessively research every recording I could find about whatever music we were playing that day.” — Karina Canellakis

She grew up in a musical family in New York City; her father was a conductor and her mother a pianist. Violin was her main instrument, but conducting was always on her mind.

“I was always fascinated by conducting, always,” she said. “I started taking conducting lessons when I was 12. My dad’s a conductor, and he always thought it was just a normal thing to do. He thought it would be good for every young musician to learn how to read a score, to have a more in-depth sense of the music you’re playing and not just look at a single line. Thinking more seriously about why a piece is beautiful, trying to get the harmony, the structure, the reason why the composer wrote the piece. That’s how I was raised.”

At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Canellakis studied both violin and conducting. After graduating in 2004, she spent two years as a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Academy Orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle, then Berlin Philharmonic music director, encouraged her conducting ambitions. 

“It was a school of conducting, because I was playing under some of the greatest conductors in the world,” she said. “I was like a sponge. I was always watching them and observing.”

At Curtis, her favorite weekly class was playing in the orchestra for student conductors learning their craft with master teachers. “It was so exciting for me,” she said. “I just loved breaking down the whole art of conducting and how you can translate all of these various complicated signals into just a few movements of the face and the hands.”

After two years as a conducting student at the Juilliard School, Canellakis’ career began to take off. She won a Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2013; from 2014 to 2016, was assistant conductor at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Chicago once again played a crucial role in her career in 2016, when she won the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award given annually by the Solti Foundation U.S.

“It came at a very good moment for me,” she said. “I was finishing my life as an assistant conductor and starting my life as a fully fledged conductor on my own two legs, going around guest conducting. I was guest conducting good orchestras, but not yet the top orchestras. I didn’t have my own orchestra yet. So, you’re sort of at the mercy of a very grueling lifestyle. You’re on the road for 40-44 weeks a year. It’s one city after another because you’re trying to do as much as possible and learn as much repertoire as possible, establish your name and your reputation. You’re on this hamster wheel.”

The Solti Award, which carries a cash stipend, helps to slow down the wheel. “It’s a recognition,” Canellakis said. “It’s legitimizing your talent and your worth as a young conductor.”

Canellakis spends most of her season with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. But she is still an active guest conductor. In addition to upcoming CSO performances, her schedule this season included guest appearances in Paris, Leipzig, Stockholm, Frankfurt and San Francisco. This summer, in addition to returning to the Tanglewood Festival, she will lead a concert performance of Act 3 of Wagner’s Siegfried at Austria’s Bregenz Festival. She is focusing more on opera, including a full opera in concert every season with her Netherlands orchestra.

Canellakis is constantly struck by the differences between conducting her home orchestra and leading short guest spots elsewhere. “I’m with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra 10 weeks a year,” she said. “When you work regularly with the same orchestra, you get to know them. I know everybody in the orchestra by name; I can anticipate how certain players will approach certain pieces that we do. I can sort of imagine beforehand what’s going to need more work and where I can leave them alone.”

Guest conducting poses a different challenge. “It’s a weird phenomenon, she admitted. “You fly in on a Monday. You start rehearsing on a Tuesday morning, and you have this incredibly intense musical experience where you’re staring deeply into people’s eyes and the page [of the score]. You’re really putting your blood, sweat and tears right into the emotion of the moment. You share that with the musicians. It’s very intense, and it bonds you very quickly. You spend these five or six days together. And then maybe you see a few of the musicians after the final concert. You give them a hug, and say ‘Thank you very much. This was so wonderful.’ And then you get on an airplane the next day. And you might not see them for another two or three years.”

But Canellakis isn’t interested in dialing down the intensity. “With music, it’s fundamentally required that you open yourself. If you don’t, it blocks the possibility of better music-making. You have to make yourself vulnerable in that moment while, of course, being in control of what you’re doing. Hopefully, everybody on stage is transported by the transcendent aspect of the piece you’re playing.

“That sound you’re making together becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. I used to feel that way playing in Chicago, especially with Bruckner. It was larger than life. It was so much larger than me or the person sitting next to me or the horn player behind me. That’s the goal with every performance, right? We take this to another plane, another level.”